A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.
I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.
When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.
They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.
The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.
Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.
The problem with leaders
Every soul in the universe desperately claws for attention. (Except me.) It’s obvious in kids. Little boys climbing trees shout, “Mom, look at me,” and little girls dancing in their Easter dresses call out, “Dad, look at me.”
Adults are more subtle. But not much. People-pleasers grab for notice by their niceness; great administrators humbly point out their great dedication; and Wall Street financiers arrogantly proclaim their brilliance.
The best way to be noticed is to become a leader. Better yet, a spiritual leader. People beg for your time, they adore your advice, and they praise you to their friends. Many leaders with the largest followings are the men and women most desperate for attention. They work harder than you because they need more notice than you.
The problem with these leaders is that their lives primarily evoke their own praise.
We are surrounded by a sea of humanity, and we leave footprints in the sands of the lives we touch. The impression of our lives is felt by the people we engage. Each engagement with us leaves others encouraged, loved, more confident, willing to take risks, and inspired to love God.
Or inspired to praise our brilliance, exalt our humility, or take notice of our niceness.
So each one of us leads, we all leave footprints. But what kind of leader are we? There are only two kinds of leaders: leaders who pour out others to build monuments to themselves, and leaders who pour out themselves and disappear. The only monuments that last are built by leaders who aren’t building their own lasting monuments.
How do we know if our own leadership is mostly about us?
- We talk far more than we ask (like it’s better to give than receive … advice).
- Our emotional life is determined by recognition (or its absence) from others.
- We lack curiosity—genuine, heart-gripping intrigue—about the lives of others.
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes a young man on a bus trip to heaven. While walking with a guide, he sees a great woman of beauty beyond description. He asks,
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
Sarah Smith simply loved every man, woman, and child she met, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves.”
How do we do it?
It’s tempting to end with, “Let’s become disappearing leaders.” But it won’t work. Go ahead and try it. (I dare you.) We can’t do it. I can’t pull myself up by my bootstraps.
We all want recognition—somehow to be noticed—and we use our energy to get it. (Come on, let’s admit we do it, either in our brilliant leadership or in our forced humility, we’re looking for a bit of recognition.)
We need to be seen before we can disappear
The gospel lesson, over and over again, is we need to be given before we can give. We love because he first loved us; we comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given; Jesus washed the disciples’ feet so they can wash others.
We need to be seen by God and we’ll no longer care if we’re seen by others. I’m serious. What we need most right now isn’t stronger finances, a better marriage, more people in our pews (or more readers of our blogs). We simply need to see and be seen by God.
Leaders won’t mind going invisible and the humble won’t mind being exalted. When we are seen, we’ll finally look into the lives of others, and through us, others will see God.
Who knows, maybe a few Presbyterians will even wiggle their toes.